Theater maestro donnie l. betts (lower case preferred) does it all: He acts, directs, produces, writes plays and makes films, both locally and nationally. But of all the projects he’s done over his decades-long career, the one closest to his heart might be Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days, an ongoing series of radio plays that debuted just over twenty years ago.
Now Destination Freedom is in the midst of a new season that demonstrates just how well betts has updated the concept for new audiences. The second of four fresh episodes, "The Tale of the Bullet" — a completely new radio play written by betts and starring early hip-hop icon Prince Po and local songstress/actor Such — premieres on Tuesday, October 22, at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts. The show will conclude with an in-depth panel discussion led by Denver activist Brother Jeff, followed by live performances by Prince Po and Such.
Destination Freedom started out on KGNU as retooled broadcasts of the original series of the same name, the brainchild of author and radio scriptwriter Richard Durham, which ran from 1948 to 1950 on WMAQ, an NBC affiliate in Chicago. Durham wrote biographical scripts about African-American heroes, from entertainers such as Lena Horne and Louis Armstrong to historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells, and betts saw the series as a social action that was ahead of its time, as well as an expression of community spirit.
He re-created old-time sound effects and cast celebrities both local and national to voice the characters — including actor and singer Oscar Brown Jr., who was an original cast member of Durham’s series. Over time, the production morphed from a radio broadcast into a live performance recorded before audiences at various venues. And as audiences became better educated about black history, betts began to see the need for more contemporary stories dealing with modern issues.
"The Tale of the Bullet" is just that: a story told from the point of view of a bullet used to perpetrate violence. “It’s the gun that gets all the love," betts explains, "but the bullets do the work of tearing through flesh. The gun was used to allow the bullet to do the damage.” The script was inspired by “Stray Bullet,” the 1994 rap hit by Organized Konfusion, Prince Po’s underground hip-hop duo with Pharoahe Monch, which began with a detailed description of a gun discharging a bullet toward a random victim:
Let the trigger finger put the pressure to the mechanism
Which gives a response for the automatic
Clip to release projectiles in single
File forcing me to ignite then travel
Through the barrel headed for the light
At the end of a tunnel with no specific target in sight
Slow the flow like H2O water
Visualize the scene of a homicide a slaughter
No remorse for the course I take when you pull it
The result's a stray bullet
“The stories of the past tell how people overcame obstacles, and that’s still how that theme presents today,” says betts, pointing to the modern proliferation of gun violence and the ongoing gun-control arguments. “At first, it seemed like we were making progress as people, but now we’ve taken a step back, if anything.”
But betts isn’t stepping back. “'The Tale of the Bullet' is part of a three-year platform for Destination Freedom dealing with violence, gender identity and immigration issues under the theme of ‘the change is gonna come,’” he explains. The goals of the series haven't changed, though. “The focus has always been to tell the stories that are not being told,” he adds, “but now we’re taking a more contemporary bent: We used the historical to set up for the contemporary.”
Destination Freedom will close its 2019 season with a collaboration with Su Teatro’s Tony Garcia on a two-part radio adaptation of journalist Sonia Nazario’s harrowing fictionalized immigration account Enrique’s Journey; that production will be at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder in November. In 2020, betts hopes to stage new episodes dealing with immigration, gender identity and other current issues.
While the radio format might seem an alien concept to young people used to 24-hour-a-day social media, betts says they do come around: “This new audience needs a lot of ’splaining,” he notes, “but when they see it, they get it.” While what used to be known as the civil rights movement has morphed into Black Lives Matter, racial social justice is as relevant a topic today as it was in the ’60s, he points out.
Destination Freedom is “still the same 25 minutes of drama” that it’s always been, betts promises. “I wrote 'The Tale of the Bullet' four years ago, hoping that I wouldn't ever have to produce it. But a lot more people are getting consumed by noise, nonsense or just tuned out, and if you tune out, you’re susceptible. With all the shooting and continued use of violence we’re seeing in society, I felt it had to be produced.”
He hopes the updated series will get people talking. “Can we ever as human beings not resort to violence?” he asks. “When will we seek that help we need, and not take things out on others? And can we have an honest conversation about gun violence, and look for solutions rather than repeating the same arguments over again?
"We need to be able to talk honestly about it.”
To that end, betts hopes to expand access to Destination Freedom by converting the entire series, from the classics to the latest episodes, into podcasts. “I want people to be open to what we do, to see a show and come again," he says. "We have a subscription service coming up beginning in 2020, so they can listen in if they can’t attend.”
See "The Tale of the Bullet" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 22, at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts, 2344 East Iliff Avenue. An extended community conversation and panel discussion will follow the show. Get more information and tickets, $18 to $23, at newmancenterpresents.com or call 303-871-7720.
Learn more about donnie l. betts and Destination Freedom at nocredits.com.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.